Do you ever wonder about the people who are featured on reality shows? I do. I am not a big fan of the genre, though I admit to having watched my share of Project Runway and Top Chef years ago before I got fed up. Notice too, that these are explicitly staged competitions between adult practitioners of a specific art. I could never stomach the shows that purported to invade family life and included underage members of the household as a part of the script. In 'Reality Boy' A.S. King sets out to explore the longer term consequences of exposure on national television for a child whose family is featured on a variant of the nanny shows that proliferated in the early '00s.
When Gerald Faust was five his family was showcased on three episodes and as a consequence of taking out his anger on camera -- defecating on targeted furniture and clothing at home and in public -- his life until the age of seventeen has been warped by his infamy. He has been taunted by classmates as 'The Crapper', had problems managing his anger and been shunted into a special education class that clearly doesn't challenge him, though it provides a refuge of sorts from the rest of the world. It becomes clear early on that Gerald isn't the monster that he has been taught that he is and that there are good reasons for his anger and unhappiness. While the reader understands that Gerald is really a pretty good guy, it takes him longer to figure it out.
Much of the pleasure in this book is in A.S. King's brilliant evocation of Gerald's interior life and the portrayal of his developing insight into himself and his family. His ability to empathize with others and to trust his own perceptions come slowly and are won honestly. While he is more damaged than many teens, his journey along first steps towards adulthood parallel the growth trajectory that all teens follow. Gerald is rendered with subtlety and his story is emotionally engaging and compelling -- I read this book in a single day, not because it was an easy read, but because once you are privileged to enter Gerald's universe you are rooting for him to transcend his pain and can't bear to leave him until you see what happens.
What didn't feel believable to me was the nature of the extreme dysfunction of Gerald's family. This is not to say that it couldn't happen, but that I didn't feel that King's portrayal of Gerald's automaton of a mother who consistently overlooks the warped behavior of his deeply troubled older sister, Tasha, and his father's abdication of responsibility, were ultimately convincing. Perhaps this was due to my suspicions of Gerald's reliability as a narrator, or simply because the extreme nature of the emotional and physical abuse isn't a situation I'm familiar enough with to feel plausible. But, perhaps this is a trivial criticism for the target audience as I suspect many teen readers would not be sufficiently captivated by Gerald's story if his family's woes were less extreme.
This is the first of A.S. King's books that I gotten around to reading though several more are in my sights. Based on the experience of reading 'Reality Boy' I'm betting I'm in for some thought-provoking and emotionally involving reading.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, but don't worry, if I hadn't liked it, I would have said so.